Why do some convert to a religion and others do not? What contributes to de-conversion and then conversion to another religion, or to no religion at all?
Over the last half century in particular social scientists have published countless books and articles based on sound empirical data to help us answer these questions. For much longer theologians have grappled with these questions, often drawing on spiritual assertions that they hold to be true alongside anecdotal stories to defend their claims. I have waded through much of the literature in both of these camps and I have written and presented on this topic over the past year based on my research data. Yet I must confess that few topics create cognitive dissonance for me like this one; a tension between my theological and sociological “worlds.” Let me explain.
In recent months I completed various books and listened to several sermons that deal with sharing one’s faith and conversion to Christianity. In the past week alone I read a colleague’s endorsement of the claim that “the harvest is ripe, but the workers are few” (Mark Buchanan’s book, Spiritual Rhythm – if you get the chance, read anything by Mark; well worth it!), and then a sermon on Sunday morning reminding the congregation of this same theme in Matthew 9:37. Few religious leaders would put it as crudely as this but the implication is that more disciples of Jesus Christ need to arise, take the risk, and become “workers” among the ripe harvest of potential converts. This logic is then buttressed with religious platitudes that help religious folk to feel empowered and emboldened to share their faith: “God is on our side,” “join others in this group and avoid keeping your faith private as is the cultural norm in Canada,” and “take a leap of faith to share your faith, and know that others in this community are doing the same.” This is Durkheimian sociology in spades because we can take solace in our place in the group – we are not alone. Theologically, I get the arguments and I even repeat some of them when I speak with church leaders on how to respond to the current Canadian religious landscape.
Sociologically however, I am not sure that the evidence shows a ripe harvest. In my short academic career to date I have consistently argued that the harvest is not ripe and that Canadians are not interested in religion or God or religious organizations. Regardless of what religious groups do – better preaching, livelier music, or more programming – Canadians are unlikely to turn to religious organizations, or faith/spirituality, or God; they are content with their beliefs and practices regarding religion. I will not unpack my rationale or the evidence for this argument here, though check out some of my articles (www.joelthiessen.ca) and my forthcoming book project, An Individual Faith: Don’t Push Religion. At the same time, sociological evidence consistently shows that the leading factor to someone converting to a religion is a personal invitation from an “insider” to consider the beliefs and practices of a religious group.
On one hand my religious group instructs that the harvest is ripe and on the other hand my sociological side says this is not really true. What is one to do with this inconsistency? I confess that I am not sure how to “land” on this topic yet, but this is okay. This wrestling is part of the theological quest that leaves space for questions and doubts and uncertainty, and is also part of the sociological pursuit of knowledge that encourages deeper levels of questioning rooted in empirical inquiry. I remain committed to working through these theological, empirical, and personal points of tension, willing to suspend judgment until a future date when things hopefully become clearer, if at all. Though if I am completely honest, I lean toward the sociological evidence.
Some may consider this post a theological (personal) or sociological (professional) suicide, depending on one’s vantage point. To the contrary, the quest to know more, to ask questions, to seek answers, to dialogue and debate, and to allow tensions to “be” for a period of time are fundamental traits of both Christianity and sociology.
Students often ask me how one can be a Christian and a sociologist. My response evolves each year and I suspect that this latest experience and set of reflections will only strengthen my account of the sheer complexity of being a Christian or a sociologist or both together. Just as professors urge students to never cease grappling with difficult topics about faith and their respective discipline of interest, may we as professors continue to model and strive for the same ideals. Doing so embodies just one aspect of faith-based learning for me and is one of the reasons that I value teaching and researching at a place like Ambrose.